Connecticut Supreme Court Rules on Punitive Damages Question

After a series of trips up and down the judicial ladder, the Connecticut Supreme Court determined in a 4-2 decision that United Parcel Service was not required under General Statute § 46a-104 to pay punitive damages to former employee Michael Tomick for discrimination on account of his disability. While many points of the jury’s initial ruling from 2010 were appealed, last month’s decision was only concerned with punitive damages. In May of 2015, the CHRO wrote a blog post detailing Tomick v. United Parcel Service.

UPS claimed that punitive damages could not be awarded, due to the decision in Ames v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles—a case regarding indemnification provisions in response to unfair trade practices—which stated that punitive damages must be explicitly stated within the statute. Tomick asserted that this language was not contributing to the overall ruling in Ames, and therefore was not necessarily binding in other courts.

Finding both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s arguments surrounding the language of § 46a-104 plausible, the majority cited common law, related statutes, and legislative history to cut through the ambiguity and come to their decision. The court utilized the same approach in Ames for Tomick, stating that the statutes do not allow for such a penalty, because it is not explicit. Accordingly, the majority ruled in favor of the defendant. As a result, punitive damages must now be explicit within a statute in order to be eligible as an award for future cases.

While this question was being deliberated, the CHRO submitted an amicus curiae brief, arguing in favor of the punitive damages awarded to Mr. Tomick. The reasons for this position were threefold. First, the CHRO argued that punitive damages are an important preventative measure against discrimination by employers in the workplace. Second, the language of “including, but not limited to” present in § 46a-104 expresses legislative intent of an illustrative list of remedies. Finally, § 46a-104 and § 46a-86 provide for comparison, as the two sections dealt with anti-discrimination employment matters. Whereas the use of Ames relies on statutes not directly concerning these matters, the CHRO pointed to the comparable legislative history of both of these statutes, which implied intent of making punitive damages available.

In his dissent, Justice Richard Palmer agreed with the majority that § 46a-104 was ambiguous and that “the available legislative history is silent on the question before us”. But he differed from the majority in that this gap in the law does not necessarily show that the legislature did not want punitive damages to be available. Justice Palmer also cited the final point of the CHRO’s amicus brief as especially convincing. Palmer stated that the ruling in Ames, which he himself wrote, was flawed due to the “loose drafting” and “false equivalencies” that were drawn in regards to punitive damage awards and other remedies. On account of his mistake in Ames, he asserted that applying Ames to the Tomick ruling was also unfounded.

In spite of the mutual recognition of the statutory ambiguity by both sides, the court has ultimately come to the decision that punitive damages should not be available in the case of employment discrimination. As such, it is the only form of discrimination to which this remedy is not extended. Why the legislature would have intended for this to be the case remains unclear. That being said, should the legislature determine that it would like to extend punitive damages to this area, it will make its intent plain and ultimately set this issue to rest.